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Case Study 17: M.Litt in Classics, University of St Andrews

Overview

St Andrews taught Master’s programmes consist of a taught component and a dissertation. In Classics’ four programmes, the taught component comprises a core ‘themes and methods’ module and two ‘thematic’ modules. The core module has a number of features that aim to promote self-reflection and self-awareness in scholarly terms as well as offering an intensive introduction to a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches and issues in the discipline. 

Keywords

Autonomy; reflective learning; Classics; Greek; Latin; Ancient History; Classical Studies; portfolio

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

The core module runs throughout the year and consists of fortnightly (though sometimes more frequent) seminars. These focus on key episodes in the history of Classical scholarship, current themes in Classical studies (e.g. cultural identity; modern reception of the ancient world; gender studies) and important methods and theories (e.g. literary theory, commentary technique, archaeology). The aim is to help MLitt students understand their own professional context and reflect upon their own learning and current position.

The formal manifestation of this aim is the ‘portfolio.’ This is a specific piece of coursework which is compiled across the year in addition to the various coursework essays, etc. that the students submit. It consists of the following:

  • Seminar ‘Position statements’ and reflective posts. Prior to each core module seminar, students must post a ‘position statement’ to our VLE, summarising their response to that week’s reading and discussion questions. These posts form the basis of discussion in class. For the portfolio, an additional statement must be added outlining what the student learned and how his/her views changed.
  • Semesterly reflection statements: 500 words written at the end of each semester reflecting on how the student’s understanding of the discipline has changed.
  • Research seminar analyses. Students are required to attend a minimum of three of the School’s weekly research seminars each semester and write up and critique both the paper and the discussion for inclusion in the portfolio. (With the course co-ordinator’s permission, they may substitute a paper from another venue or an external conference.)

Overall, the intention is that students reflect upon how Classical scholarship is pursued and how they might pursue it. 

What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?

Students admitted to the MLitt usually have a good degree in Latin and Greek, Classical Studies or Ancient History already. The aim of the MLitt is to help students make the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate research methods and thinking and writing styles. A major challenge students at this level face is the greatly increased requirement for independent thinking, not just in responding critically to the scholarly literature but in tasks such as setting their own essay questions. The core ‘themes and methods’ module is intended to help them realise that the publications they have been reading for their undergraduate studies have a context in the history of scholarship and help them appreciate – in quite hands-on fashion – the range of angles that could be brought to bear on a particular piece of evidence. The portfolio aspect is intended to encourage them to challenge their own preconceptions and help them realise when they have learned something. The pre-seminar position statements also help the seminar tutors (who change from session to session) challenge the students to extend or defend their positions.

What makes it “masters” level?

The requirement for this level of contextualisation and self-reflection is rare at undergraduate level. Some Honours (third- and fourth-year) modules now use ‘learning diaries’, which are similar to the weekly sections of the portfolio, i.e. pre-seminar VLE posts which are then written up for a final, consolidated submission. This has developed very much as an extension to undergraduate level of the postgrad practice. Practical considerations of staff time make it hard to manage at undergraduate level, especially if position statements are submitted weekly in a solo-taught module, and even more so if students receive online responses. The MLitt core modules are team-taught, and this spreads the load. When learning diaries are used at undergrad level, the content of the module tends to be much more closely focused and content-led, and we do not expect undergrads to cope with such a wide range of theoretical positions in quick succession. In the MLitt, the expectation is that students will provide their own content and try to find ways in which the approaches and issues discussed in the seminars might affect their own work. So there is an expectation of a higher level of intellectual independence and experimentation at Master’s level – which is fitting, since we conceive of the MLitt as a preparation for PhD study.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

The main problem is a combination of encouraging the students to think reflectively, giving them the tools to do so (in the form of well-chosen readings) and allowing them the time to master the material and consider it critically – and all that while they are working for their thematic modules and core-module essays at the same time. Originally, the core module had weekly seminars, but we had to reduce their frequency to approximately fortnightly a couple of years ago. The students were understandably finding that the work-rate was too high and tutors were noticing not only that engagement with the core module was starting to become superficial but also work in the thematic modules was suffering. The lower frequency of meetings has helped a lot. There is a balance to be struck between quality and quantity here.

Where to next?

For the MLitt, more of the same – it seems to work. I think we may see variants of the MLitt structure being used in advanced undergraduate modules. For the students, a lot of them go on to doctoral study, either in St Andrews or elsewhere, so the MLitt is serving its purpose as a preparation for research well.

Links

Programme website

Author's name, contact details and institution

Ralph Anderson, School of Classics, University of St Andrews. Email rta1@st-andrews.ac.uk. Telehone 01334 462619.